5 Tips for Preventing Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a potential consequence of osteoarthritis and/or degenerative changes in the spine. The hallmark of spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces through which the spinal cord and/or spinal nerve roots pass. Nerves and the spinal cord are made of very sensitive material, and when they come into contact with nearby bones, symptoms often result.

Arthritis and spinal stenosis usually results from aging or trauma from injuries, impact and the like.

How Spinal Stenosis is Created

Spinal stenosis is created over time as a spinal ligament called the ligamenum flavum gets bigger. This phenomenon is called hypertrophy or an overgrown ligamentum flavum. (The ligamentum flavum is located on a part of the bony ring that comprises the back of the spinal bones called the lamina, extending from 2nd neck vertebra all the way down the spinal column to the sacrum.)

Along with an overgrown ligamentum flavum, nearby facet joints develop bone spurs that encroach on the space made by the spinal canal.

A hypertrophic ligamentum flavum and/or bone spurs around the face joints may compress your nerves, creating pain, weakness, electrical-like (nerve) symptoms as well as difficulty walking. Difficulty with walking is the classic symptom of spinal stenosis and is known as neurogenic claudication.

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Can You Prevent Spinal Stenosis?

A man holding his low back grimaces.
Spinal stenosis increasingly causes back pain in seniors. kozzi2

Let’s face it: Nearly every one of us will develop at least a little arthritis or experience some degenerative spinal changes, especially after we reach the age of 50. But most of us don’t want to experience the symptoms spinal stenosis. What to do? Can we prevent it? According to Johns Hopkins, the answer technically is no, for the very reason just mentioned—everyone gets it. They do say there are ways to reduce your risk, though.

Preventing spinal stenosis is largely a matter of emphasizing daily and weekly habits that should be included for a healthy back in general. While making adjustments to your lifestyle may not seem like it's doing anything to help you prevent stenosis, keep in mind that each good habit you successfully change and/or maintain over time can contribute to the success of your overall prevention effort.

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Get Regular Exercise

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We all need regular exercise—it just comes with the being human package. An exercise plan that’s tailored to who you are as individual—which means it takes your age, health concerns, including any arthritis or spinal stenosis you may already have, and your fitness level into consideration—may help you safely build your endurance, increase or maintain your spinal flexibility and develop those good ‘ole back supporting abdominal muscles.

What to Do If Exercise Is too Tough

Not an exercise buff? Or exercise gives you pain or other symptoms? Firstly, if you have symptoms, you should call your doctor or physical therapist for an evaluation and treatment rather than trying to exercise on your own. You may already have spinal stenosis without realizing it.

Then, once you’re cleared by your qualified, licensed health professional for exercise consider starting small and progressing slowly. Monitor your response to exercise in terms of pain, weakness, and nerve symptoms. If you notice any of these, stop, and do an easier workout next time. Notice I didn’t say stop forever. It’s important to exercise regularly; you just need to identify the level at which you can safely sustain this kind of activity.

And if your stenosis makes walking painful ​for you, you might need to identify another form of aerobic exercise. Some common substitutions include stationary cycling, swimming, and deep water exercises using flotation devices.

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Stretch to Increase Your Range of Motion

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Along with pain and stiffness, a reduction in your range of motion is a common symptom of spinal stenosis. So one prevention strategy is to keep up with your flexibility training.

This will likely include stretching, but you can also do relaxation exercises, water exercise and holistic therapies as enhancements. The key is that flexibility training improves your mobility, which may well help stave off the pain and other symptoms normally associated with spinal stenosis. You can get started with these back release moves.

One preventative measure you might consider is make a pre-emptive appointment with a physical therapist to get an evaluation plus stretching exercises that are tailored to you. She may offer you some movements that can relieve any early symptoms.

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Get Good Posture

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Learning how to sit with good posture as well as perform chores and tasks (like lifting heavy things or reaching up high to get something or gardening) may help you avoid injury and wear and tear that could possibly lead to spinal stenosis.

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Plus size woman wearing sports clothing on mountain at sunrise
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Attaining and maintaining a normal healthy weight for your height may go a long way toward keeping spinal stenosis from developing, or at least from bothering you.

Carrying extra body weight puts pressure on all the components of the spine, including the facet joints. It can also impede exercising with good form, which is a practice that develops overall strength, flexibility, back support, and the ability to get through the day minimal muscle fatigue. These factors may, in the long run, help you avoid the development of spinal stenosis.

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It’s not news that smoking is associated with back pain.

Smoking might cause degenerative changes by constricting blood vessels that feed your spine. Not only that, but it can amplify pain perception.

And if you're planning a spinal fusion, your surgeon may possibly require you to quit before she is willing to operate. This is because smoking slows bone healing. Spinal fusions are 33% less likely to be successful in people who smoke, according to Ondra and Marzouk in their article "Revision Strategies for Lumbar Pseudarthrosis.".

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View Article Sources
  • Ondra, S., M.D., Marzouk, S., M.D. "Revision Strategies for Lumbar Pseudarthrosis." Medscape website.
  • "Physical Therapist's Guide to Spinal Stenosis." Move Forward Guide. Move Forward website.
  • "Spinal Stenosis." National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, NIH website. Jan 2013. Accessed July 2015.http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/spinal_stenosis/
  • "Spinal Stenosis." USC Center for Spinal Surgery website.